Over the Top

An overview:

From the first voting in Iowa on Jan. 3 she had to prove that Clintons Are Magic. She wound up losing 11 in a row. Meaning Clintons aren’t magic. He had to take her out in New Hampshire, on Super Tuesday or Junior Tuesday. He didn’t. Meaning Obama isn’t magic.

Two nonmagical beings are left.

What the Democrats lost this week was the chance to paint the ’08 campaign as a brilliant Napoleonic twinning of strategy and tactics that left history awed. What they have instead is a ticket to Verdun. Trench warfare, and the daily, wearying life of the soldier under siege. The mud, the cold, the dank water rotting the boots, all of it punctuated by mad cries of “Over the top,” bayonets fixed.

Clinton & Obama, over the topDo I understate? Not according to the bitter officers debating doomed strategy back in HQ. More on that in a minute.

This is slightly good for John McCain. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hemorrhage money, exhaust themselves, bloody each other. He holds barbecues for the press and gets rid of a White House appearance in which the incumbent offers his dread embrace. Do it now, they’ll forget by the summer. The president does not understand how unpopular he is and after a year on the trail with the faithful neither does Mr. McCain. Mr. Bush confided to a friend a few months ago, as he predicted a Giuliani win, that he’ll eventually come out and campaign for the nominee big time. Talk about throwing the drowning man an anvil.

But it is not good for Mr. McCain that when he officially won this week it barely made page three. The lightning is on the Democratic side. Everything else seems old, like something that happened a year ago that you forgot to notice.

How did Hillary come back? Her own staff doesn’t know. They fight over it because if they don’t know how she carried Ohio and Texas they can’t repeat the strategy.

So they figure backward. She won on Tuesday and did the following things in the weeks before, so . . . it was the kitchen-sink strategy. Or Hispanic outreach. Or the 3 a.m. ad. (The amazing thing was not that they lifted the concept from Walter Mondale’s ‘84 run, but that the answer to the question “Who are you safer with?” was, The Woman. Not that people really view Hillary as a woman, but still: That would not have been the answer even 20 years ago.)

Did she come back because Mr. Obama’s speech got a little boring? Was he coasting and playing it safe? Or was it that he didn’t hit her hard enough? “He hasn’t been able to find a way to be tough with a woman opponent,” they say on TV. But that’s not it, or is only half the truth. The other half is that it has long been agreed in the Democratic Party that one must not, one cannot, ever, refer to the long caravan of scandals that have followed the Clintons for 15 years. “We don’t speak of the Clintons that way.”

But why not? Everyone else does. Yes, the Obama sages will respond, that’s the point: Everyone knows about cattle futures, etc. Everyone knows that if you Yahoo “Clintons” and “scandals” you get 4,430,000 hits.

But what if they do need to be reminded? What if they need to be told exactly what Mr. Obama means when he speaks of the tired old ways of Washington?

But voicing the facts would violate party politesse. So he loses the No. 1 case against her. But by losing the No. 1 case, he loses the No. 2 case: that she is the most divisive figure in the country, and that this is true because people have reason to view her as dark, dissembling, thuggish.

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One Obama supporter on TheRoot.com apparently didn’t get the memo. That is the great threat to the Clintons, the number of young and independent Democrats who haven’t received the memo about how Democrats speak of the Clintons. Writer Mark Q. Sawyer: “If Obama won’t hit back, I will. Why aren’t we talking about impeachment, Whitewater and Osama?”

What do I think is the biggest reason Mrs. Clinton came back? She kept her own spirits up to the point of denial and worked it, hard, every day. She is hardy, resilient, tough. She is a train on a track, an Iron Horse. But we must not become carried away with generosity. The very qualities that impress us are the qualities that will make her a painful president. She does not care what you think, she will have what she wants, she will not do the feints, pivots and backoffs that presidents must. She is neither nimble nor agile, and she knows best. She will wear a great nation down.

In any case the Clinton campaign, which has always been more vicious than clever, this week did a very clever thing. They pre-empted any criticism of past scandals by pushing a Democratic Party button called . . . the Monica story. Mr. Obama is “imitating Ken Starr” by speaking of Mrs. Clinton’s record, said Howard Wolfson. But Ken Starr documented malfeasance. Mr. Obama can’t even mention it.

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Back to Verdun. There a bitter officer corps debated a strategy of pointless carnage—so many deaths, so little seized terrain, all of it barren. In a bark-stripping piece of reportage in the Washington Post, Peter Baker and Anne Kornblut captured “a combustible environment” in Hillary Headquarters. They cannot agree on what to do, or even what has been done in the past. And the dialogue. Blank you. Blank you! No blank you, you blank. Blank all of you. It’s like David Mamet rewritten by Joe Pesci.

These are the things that make life worth living.

As for the Clinton surrogates, they are unappealing when winning. My favorite is named Kiki. When Hillary is losing, Kiki is valiant and persevering on the talk shows, and in a way that appeals to one’s sympathies. “Go, Kiki!” I want to say as she parries with Tucker. But when Hillary is winning they’re all awful, including Kiki. By memory, from Tucker, this week: Q: Why won’t Hillary release her tax returns? A: It’s February. Taxes are due April 15, are your taxes done? Q: No, no, we’re talking past years, returns that have already been prepared. A: Are your taxes done? Mine aren’t.

Wicked Kiki! This is my great fear, in a second Clinton era: four, eight years of wicked Kiki.

I end with a deadly, deadpan prediction from Christopher Hitchens. Hillary is the next president, he told radio’s Hugh Hewitt, because, “there’s something horrible and undefeatable about people who have no life except the worship of power . . . people who don’t want the meeting to end, the people who just are unstoppable, who only have one focus, no humanity, no character, nothing but the worship of money and power. They win in the end.”

It was like Claude Rains summing up the meaning of everything in the film “Lawrence of Arabia”: “One of them’s mad and the other is wholly unscrupulous.” It’s the moment when you realize you just heard the truth, the meaning underlying all the drama. “They win in the end.” Gave me a shudder.